Sunday, August 14, 2011

Explaining the British Riots

Last week, parts of the United Kingdom were rocked by four nights of violent rioting. The initial incident began when a planned peaceful protest in the of the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a black man, in the Tottenham section of London turned violent. The trouble spread, first to other parts of London and then to other parts of the UK.

If you read the coverage of this, you will find two perspectives on what went wrong. The official view taken by the British government, is that this was senseless criminality by people who have no actual complaint against anyone but who are using the excuse to cause trouble. This was exemplified by Prime Minister David Cameron, who told the British Parliament that the Duggan shooting
was then used as an excuse by opportunist thugs in gangs, first in Tottenham itself, then across London and then in other cities. It is completely wrong to say there is any justifiable causal link.
On the other side, you have people who argue that, while the Duggan shooting itself may not be the cause of the unrest, the rioting is nonetheless based in people's deep dissatisfaction with their current situation. Writing on, Matthias Matthijs notes,
The present moment . . . is defined by a more disorganized class politics of reaction, propelled by huge inequalities and a perceived injustice and indifference by the state to the fate of those involved.
So, which is it? Is this rioting the work of criminals who saw their chance and took it, or of the dispossessed victims of economic and judicial inequality? And why is everyone so sure they know the right answer?

Traumatic events often challenge deeply held beliefs about the world. Given this conflict, people have two choices. They can assimilate the trauma into their worldview, or they can change their worldview to accommodate the trauma.

Let's imagine, by way of example, that I strongly believe that the world is safe. Then, one day, I am mugged. What do I do with that belief? I can change it and decide that the world is dangerous. Or I can take a view of the mugging that allows me to continue to believe the world is safe. In that case, the mugging was my fault for being where I should not have been. In other words, if the world is safe, it must be my fault.

Of course, the most adaptive thing to do is a mixture of both of these. In my mugging example, the healthiest place for me to land is with a belief that the world is generally safe, but probably not as safe as I once thought it was, and that given that I probably should not go to that particular area. Unfortunately, very often people over-accommodate (the world is dangerous) or over-assimilate (it's all my fault). These beliefs often get in the way of people recovering after a trauma.

You can see these two tendencies in the analysis of the London riots. David Cameron's version holds that London, and the UK in general, is full of criminals just waiting for their moment to cause havoc. This is an over-accommodated belief. In the face of danger, he is saying that the world is dangerous. He is also not taking any responsibility at all for the situation. The view that the UK's inequality caused the riots is, in much the same way, an over-assimilated belief. Faced with danger, this view holds that the world continues to be safe, so this bit of danger must be our (or somebody's) fault.

Just as in my mugging example, however, there is a healthy middle ground. It says that yes, the world is generally safe, but there are those who take advantage of situations. Our actions, or the actions of governments, furthermore, can make it less safe. The riots are neither purely the anger of the dispossessed (what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was referring to when he called riots "the language of the unheard") nor the work of pure thugs. Like everything else in life, they're complicated. Denying one side or the other will only make it that much harder to recover.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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